Ill Fares the Land
by Tony Judt
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
"For thirty years students have been complaining to me that 'it was easy for you': your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things," Tony Judt writes in the introduction to his new book, Ill Fares the Land (The Penguin Press, $25.95). It is not, Judt argues, that young people are unaware of their world's many terrifying problems. They are. It is that "our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more."
Thanks to leaders like Reagan and Thatcher, the usefulness of many public policies has been calculated in the narrowest financial terms (though, as Judt points out, the financial benefits of privatization are illusory), and respect for individual wealth and private enterprise (even when these are heavily subsidized by poorer members of society) elevated to a creepy, cultish worship. As in the recent health-care debate, any calculus of public usefulness is likely to find itself dismissed as "socialism."
After cataloguing this problem and its ramifications ("life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania"), Judt offers his solution to the crisis of what he calls the past two "lost decades," in which "fantasies of prosperity and limitless personal advancement displaced all talk of political liberation, social justice or collective action": a revival of the ideals of social democracy that brought stability and prosperity to a devastated Europe and security to generations of Americans who benefited from such public programs as Social Security and Medicare.
Judt's passionate appeal for a return to social-democratic ideals is all the more stirring because, as he has chronicled in The New York Review of Books, he suffers from an incurable disease that has left him paralyzed and forced to dictate this book, which will be among his last. Rather than yield to the kind of despair that would dispose him to see his own irreversible decline mirrored in the wider world, Judt shows uncommon courage by not giving up hope for his society, even as he has been forced to give up hope for himself.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.